In scenes reminiscent of reality television, last weekend's presidential elections in Nigeria resulted in a veritable cliffhanger as the nation awaited the final vote tally. On Sunday, the media director of the ruling party's campaign support organisation tried to gain the upper hand by announcing, illegally and untruthfully, that the incumbent Peoples' Democratic Party (PDP) had won in 23 states.

As partial results were announced on Monday, one media house trumpeted that incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan was ahead on votes, while another blared that his opponent, former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, had won more states.

Given Nigeria's complex electoral system (where, in addition to winning an outright majority of votes, a candidate must also poll 25 percent of the vote in two-thirds of the country's 36 states, as well as in the federal capital territory of Abuja), most analysts maintained that this election was too close to call until most of the results were validated.

Buhari ahead in tight Nigeria poll count

But as more results trickled in on Tuesday, it appeared that Buhari's All Progressives Congress (APC) was inching ahead, lending credence to the Nigerian electorate's appetite for change.

Jonathan's administration has been heavily criticised for rampant corruption, a weak economic base, and its failure to rein in the Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast, where militants have killed thousands and abducted hundreds with impunity.

Largely free and fair

Election observers declared the poll to be largely free and fair, praising the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) for a well-managed election, despite several delays, some technical glitches and sporadic violence, including the torching of INEC's offices in oil-rich Rivers State. But according to Nigeria's Transition Monitoring Group, which had positioned observers throughout the country, "These issues did not systematically disadvantage any candidate or party."

By mid-afternoon on Tuesday, it was evident that even if Jonathan could replicate his 2011 landslides in the PDP's southern and southeastern strongholds, Buhari had built a strong enough lead for an overall win, especially given his victories in the country's three most populous states, Kano, Lagos, and Kaduna. So the big question then was whether he could meet the 25 percent constitutional requirement in order to avoid a run-off vote. By Tuesday evening, Buhari had proven conclusively that he could.

Most surprising was the lower-than-expected turnout in the PDP's traditional strongholds, and the swings towards the APC even in Jonathan's heartland. It appears that, in an unprecedented move, many Nigerians have shifted their voting patterns away from former tribal, religious and regional alliances. This may well be the first Nigerian election where issues trump allegiances.

Many remember Buhari's 20-month rule in the mid-1980s, as a time when hundreds of corrupt politicians, businessmen and officials were convicted of and jailed for graft.

Buhari's win marks a milestone for Nigeria; it is the first time an incumbent has been democratically beaten through the ballot box. Still, legal challenges can be expected in some areas, as well some degree of post-election violence in tense areas such as Rivers State, where rebels who had negotiated a lucrative peace deal with Jonathan's administration, had threatened havoc in the event of a Buhari win. Jonathan won a massive 95 percent of the vote in Rivers State, and the state governor imposed a curfew from Monday in a bid to maintain stability.

Track record

Meanwhile, the PDP's appeal to INEC to cancel the results from several of the states won by Buhari may reflect some PDP insiders' fear of Buhari, who has a track-record of indicting and imprisoning corrupt predecessors.

Though recently tainted by allegations that he has acquired a farm worth about $500m through questionable means, Jonathan personally has much to gain from a graceful acceptance of defeat, which would make him a favourite contender for the substantial Mo Ibrahim Award. His legacy will include the transformation of INEC into an independent and transparent body, among other institutional advances. But several of his PDP cronies, whom Jonathan declined to investigate on various corruption related charges, may have good reason to thwart a Buhari victory.

During his campaign, Buhari promised that "anyone who steals Nigeria's money will end up in Kirikiri Maximum Prisons. We are going to make sure that Nigeria's wealth belongs only to Nigerians".

This has resonated with citizens who are frustrated by the endemic graft in both the public and private sectors. Many remember Buhari's 20-month rule in the mid-1980s, as a time when hundreds of corrupt politicians, businessmen and officials were convicted of and jailed for graft.

Thus, Buhari's victory could prove to be very unwelcome for the many "big shots" implicated in corruption and fraud scandals during recent years. An APC administration may well choose to investigate and prosecute cases that the PDP government preferred to overlook or withdraw.

A supporter of Muhammadu Buhari riding on a motorcycle [AP] 

Well-publicised honesty

While Buhari's promoters laud his well-publicised honesty, his detractors point to his poor human rights record, his support for Islamic law in the Muslim-majority north of the country and his leanings towards military dictatorship.

Indeed, civil rights such as freedom of expression and freedom of the press deteriorated under Buhari's previous rule, and his economic management was also widely criticised as it heralded inflationary increases.

But he appears to have learnt from his mistakes and has projected moderate social democrat views during this presidential bid, declaring that he will diversify the country's economic base away from its dependence on oil, and vowing to create three million jobs for unemployed youths. His closeness to the military may also facilitate an easier path for dealing with Boko Haram, both at the national and regional levels.

Whether Buhari's administration can deliver on his promises remains to be seen. If the 2015 election has proven anything, it is that the Nigerian electorate has come of age, determined to be heard and to hold its leaders accountable to the citizenry. In the final analysis, Buhari will have to put his money where his mouth is in order to retain the presidency beyond 2019. 

Ayesha Kajee is a human rights activist and political analyst with a special focus on African governance and development. She tracks elections and democratic consolidation in the region. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera